Indian-ish is prefaced with a warning: this is not a cookbook for traditional Indian food. Far from it. But what it does, and does well, is preserve the flavour principles of Indian food – particularly North Indian food – and help the novice cook recreate that magic at home.
To that end, Priya Krishna’s book is an excellent introduction to Indian cuisine. The flavours are recognisably Indian, even if they are packaged in new forms. The book tries to take Indian food from intimidating and complicated to easy and intuitive, and this is evident in both the recipes and the casual, enthusiastic, best-friend-holding-your-hand-in-the-kitchen tone that Krishna adopts. Indian-ish makes Indian cuisine accessible to someone cooking in a modern kitchen with fitted microwaves, instant pots, a limited spice rack and at best, a half-stocked pantry.
While the book is clearly written for someone cooking in an American kitchen, Krishna believes it will find an audience in India as well. “I was recently in India, and I was surprised to see that there were a lot of kids my age who love the food they grew up eating but never actually learned how to make it,” said Krishna, who lives in New York. “Also, India is so cosmopolitan now – you can find amazing Japanese, Thai, Italian and Vietnamese food there. What I hope is that this book is a gateway for Indians to get back into the kitchen [and] make the familiar flavours of their childhood. I hope it reminds them of the fun of cooking with and for your family and of preserving those heirloom recipes over time.”
What is also lovely about the book is that it is a love letter to Krishna’s mother. Krishna unabashedly references her mother every few pages, quoting her on recipes, techniques, culinary wisdom, ingredient pairings and tips for hosting, asking the reader to trust her mother as implicitly as she does. The rewards are evident: recipes are easy to follow and don’t require complicated equipment or utensils. Indian-ish is decidedly modern in its outlook – quick, hassle-free recipes that lend themselves well to adaptation – but its roots lie in the tastes and smells of a typical Indian home.
Helping the novice cook are the guides in the book: a guide to lentils, spices, best wines to pair with certain Indian dishes and even a how-to on cooking rice (both stove top and microwave editions). The lentil guide provides a 101 on the common dals and uses for them for beyond the obvious. It also mentions where they can be purchased, but sadly does not provide specifics, which would have been a nice addition.
The most useful, though, is the spice guide, which also provides substitutes, should you not happen to have that particular spice on hand. But, as Krishna cheekily writes, “Spoiler alert: My mom has taught me that cumin seeds are apparently a replacement for everything.”
Krishna’s collaboration with illustrator HateCopy (aka Maria Qamar) adds to the cheeky, can-do tone of Indian-ish. “I find the subject matter of her artwork so relatable (the gossiping aunties or the overbearing parents), and I love how she is taking pop art – a style that for so long has only ever featured white people – and inserted desis,” said Krishna. “When I was creating the vision board for my book’s design, she was the only choice I had for an illustrator, and it’s so surreal to see her colourful depictions of my family in the book.”
Krishna is unapologetic about her family cuisine being a brazen fusion of East and West. While the recipes may not be authentically Indian (whatever that means), they are certainly fun and original. Substitutions may take away from authenticity but go a long way in recreating a sense of home in foreign lands. So, a spinach-and-feta subbing for saag paneer is the story of being Indian in America, as is her mother’s Roti Pizza (which involves crisping up a roti in the oven, then going wild with toppings). Or even topping almond butter toast with chaat masala.
The book also features essays by Krishna’s mother and father, to whom the book is dedicated. Her father’s Why My Yogurt is Fabulous goes into deliciously food-geek territory on the finer points of making yogurt at home and the evolutionary superiority of his yogurt culture. Ritu Krishna’s essay How I Learnt to Cook tells the story of a woman learning to cook in a foreign country, reaching into lessons from her grandmother, driven by her children’s requests and steered by her own playful sense of experimentation.
We set out to cook from the book and found the recipes simple and easy to follow. We tried the Caramelised Ginger Mushrooms and the Chile Peanut and found recipes were reliable with just the right amount of detail. The Chile Peanut Rice is reminiscent of lemon rice, minus the turmeric, and a higher peanut ratio. And the Caramelised Ginger Mushrooms were earthy and spicy, perfect for a weeknight dinner with roti or even rice.
While so many cookbooks recommend, nay, demand that you have a long list of utensils and staples in order to do them justice, Indian-ish refreshingly understands that home kitchens sometimes don’t have the space to accommodate single-use utensils and that sometimes ingredients expire. Or that you may not have the time, inclination or the budget to revamp your pantry to include the staples needed to cook from a particular book.
And this is the essence of the book – that home cooking, unlike cooking in a professional kitchen, is an act of -ish, if there ever was one. It is jugaad, an improvisational act that is never just one thing but always an -ish.
Caramelised Ginger Mushrooms
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
2 tbsp fresh ginger, julienned fresh
1 small Indian green chile or serrano chile, halved lengthwise (no need to stem them)
1 pound white button mushrooms, cut into thin slices (about 5 cups)
1 tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp red chile powder
In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil.
Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the cumin seeds and cook until they turn a medium shade of brown, about 1 minute max.
Add the onion, spread it out into an even layer in the pan, and cook until lightly browned and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the ginger and green chile and cook for 2 minutes, until the chile is slightly wilted.
Stir in the mushrooms and increase the heat to medium-high. The mushrooms will start to sweat.
Cook until the mushrooms are browned and soft and the liquid they release has evaporated, 7 to 10 minutes.
Add the salt and red chile powder.